It was a perfect, mild spring day in New York City on Monday, April 17 -- the kind of day, said Bill McKibben from a podium at the New School's Tishman Auditorium, that "fools you into thinking that New York is the greatest place in the world." Despite the appreciative smatter of laughter, chances are most of those listening really did think of New York as at least one of the world's great built environments, as McKibben was there for the first of two architecture and environment lectures sponsored by The Architectural League New York: "Deep Sustainability: Building Communities that Actually Work."
Notions about what comprise systems that work is about to change, said McKibben. Peak oil is one reason: the end of cheap and easily obtained supplies of the fossil fuels that have powered industrial civilization for the past 200 years. McKibben predicted that one day, Frank Gehry "will be seen a world champion for how much energy can be concentrated into producing one building."
Global warming is the other big reason, of course, and McKibben's evening talk came just as as it's hit the big time of mainstream American media -- from the cover of Time magazine to the cover of Vanity Fair. McKibben was one of the first to document global warming for a popular audience. His 1989 book, The End of Nature, explored the idea -- then still largely theoretical -- that something scientifically valid but emotionally counterintuitive was going on: human actions were actually having enough impact to affect the global climate. "From 1990 to 1995, more money was spent on [testing this theory] than on any other scientific question in history," said McKibben, and by 1995 climatologists agreed that it was valid. And since 1995, he went on, the Earth has been conducting a peer review of the science -- one that's pretty much upheld the case for global warming and then some. "We need an immediate 70 percent reduction in CO2 emissions worldwide just to stabilize the climate at its current state," he said, "and the irony is that this need comes just as the developing world is really starting to burn fossil fuels. If we're incredibly good and lucky technologically, we'll just be able to run in place."
McKibben doesn't anticipate an easy transition out of peak oil and into the age of climate disruption -- and as a long observer of our society's inability to muster political will in the face of obvious need, it is hard to disagree. But he sees promise in the development of "technologies of community" -- of localities creating the technological solutions that work for their cities and regions, and then implementing them in ways that not only include and inspire the people they affect, but make their lives better. McKibben described in detail the successes of the Brazilian city of Curitiba (acknowledged worldwide as a leader in sustainable design, as Alan AtKisson noted on Worldchanging in April 2005) -- which in his words are all undergirded because ultimately, reforming and re-engineering the workings of the public city were estimated to be more important than the private. "We need that here," McKibben said. "Our political era is marked by the denigration of the public. We've developed the most energy inefficient way of living. It's become really obvious since the Reagan era, but dates to the post-war expansion of the suburbs."
"We may have reached a point of no return with hyper-individualism," he continued, "But our desire for something different may emerge. Researchers now know how to study how satisfied we are with our lives." Such satisfaction peaked in America around 1956, and has been steadily declining ever since, inversely to the tripling of our material wealth. "To the degree that [researchers] can figure out what's going on, people want more contact with a community," McKibben continued. "And that's good news -- because it suggests that the answer to our energy issues is in the direction we want to go right now," towards a society in which there is a renewed interest in, and satisfaction gained from, pursuits that make us get up from in front of our home enertainment centers and go out into cities that have been built to be attractive, energy efficients, and extensions of our homes.
Planners and architects, as the people who design our built environments, will have a lot of impact on what happens in the near future, McKibben affirmed. And the internet may be a catalyst as well -- especially if it is used increasingly to not only form communities of interest, but also "communities of proximity." (McKibben has come late to examining the possibilities of networked people and movements to form a counterweight to traditional nation-state political alignments -- the second superpower -- but as his recent article/book review for The New York Review of Books, The Hope of the Web, demonstrates, we can all be glad it's gotten onto his radar.) He's currently researching and writing a book on the possibilities of strong local economies (such as local food economies -- exemplified by the burgeoning of greenmarkets, slow food and sustainable cuisine movements in New York and other cities) to help effect the least chaotic transition into the post-peak oil, climate disrupted age.
The next lecture in this series will be "Integrating Ecology, Economics and Design to Create a Sustainable and Desirable Future," with
Robert Costanza, director of the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics at UVM, on Wednesday, April 26 at the Donnell Library Center, 20 West 53rd Street, New York City.
Update 25 April 06: As noted by Cay in the comments, The Architectural League New York is making podcasts of this series are available online here, via iTunes.
(crossposted with OneAtlantic)
You can download a podcast of Bills lecture here via itunes.
Thanks for posting that link, Cay.
Excellent conference in NYC about peak oil, alternative energy, permaculture, local food and better public transport happening April 2729. We are seriously focused on action and practical solutions, not simply alarmism and hand-wringing.
See world-famous speakers such as James Howard Kunstler, author of The Long Emergency, Derrick Jensen, author of The Culture of Make Believe, Mike Ruppert, administrator of From the Wilderness, and Matt Savinar, administrator of lifeaftertheoilcrash.net. Only $35 a day, with special discounts available!
Go to http://www.energysolutionsconference.org/ for more information.